ST. PETERSBURG — Residents made a gruesome discovery in the alley behind their homes late one night four months ago, leaving police with this mystery:
How did the charred body of 19-year-old Michael Anthony Tillman end up in a burning trash bin?
At the time, police said that Tillman was murdered before he was set on fire. They didn't say much more. It remained an unsolved murder.
Now St. Petersburg detectives think they've pieced together what happened to Tillman and how he ended up in the alley behind Ninth Avenue S on Jan. 31.
But in doing so, police also discovered that they might not be able to arrest whoever killed him.
That's because Tillman may have been shot dead during the attempted home invasion of a drug house, according to St. Petersburg police Maj. Mike Puetz. "Someone inside the house, probably defending themselves, fired a gun," Puetz said.
Tillman died of a gunshot wound, police say. During the alleged home invasion robbery, police believe, his accomplices fled, leaving him behind.
The shooter, police theorize, then got rid of the body by setting it afire. "We're not sure if that's to conceal identity," Puetz said, "or just a message of some sort."
Tillman's first arrest was at age 16 for firing a weapon into a dwelling. He was arrested twice in the days leading up to his death — for marijuana possession on Jan. 3 and for cocaine possession just eight days before he died. His family declined to comment Wednesday.
Police acknowledge they haven't pieced together the whole story behind his death. Investigators believe they know where the home invasion took place and who the shooter might be, though they would not make that information public.
They don't have enough evidence to arrest that person, Puetz said. Police say they need more information to make their case. But another problem is whether there's a case to make. That's because if Tillman was shot dead during the commission of a crime — even if the shooter was engaged in illegal activities — the shooter still has the right of self-defense.
"We couldn't charge him with murder when people are actually trying to break into his house," Puetz said.
But that doesn't mean no one would be held responsible for Tillman's death.
Under the felony murder statute, anyone participating in a crime that results in death can be charged with murder — even when it's an accomplice who is killed.
But just building that kind of criminal case will be difficult, the major said. "There's not a whole lot of motivation for anyone involved in this scenario to step forward and cooperate with the police," Puetz said. "There's not a good citizen involved in any of this stuff."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8472.